ACEs and School Shootings

27867072_10215860785971231_5281013096099332459_nPause for a moment and take a breath before you read this. See if you can hold judgment, if your heart can soften and open, if you can read without needing to respond immediately. I invite you to just take this in.

Hurt people hurt people. That’s a mantra in the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) awareness community, and it’s what I thought of when I heard the news that yet another teen shot up a school. It didn’t take long to start hearing the perpetrator’s childhood traumas: adopted along with his brother (what age? Was he exposed to the foster care system?), that his adoptive father died years ago, and then orphaned this past December when his adoptive mother died as well. He was expelled from high school last year due to behavior issues. Be clear that I fully condemn this young man’s actions. But his public defender had it right when, at the arraignment hearing, she put her hand on his back and said, “This is a broken human being”. He is sad and expressing remorse. His life didn’t need to play out this way.

Neuroscience is demonstrating how traumatic events impact a growing child, damaging brain development, altering immune, hormone and cardiovascular systems and shifting genetic expression. This is particularly true when the brain is rapidly developing between 0-3 years old and again in adolescence. Our lived experience actually becomes our biology. Memories formed before we are verbal shape our worldview, and when experiences are unpredictable, threatening, and overwhelming the lower areas of our brains wire more densely, ramping up our survival/stress response/fight or flight instincts. These changes, if not mitigated, persist throughout adulthood.

Nurturing, loving environments with reasonable amounts of stress promote healthy brain development, enabling adaptive stress responses that strengthen us for life’s challenges. Our brains remain plastic (read: changeable) throughout our lifetimes. Indeed there is increasing recognition that this is what is happening when we address our suffering, through creating narrative, naming the wisdom and insight that comes from life experiences, or when we more intentionally seek healing through counseling, movement (i.e. yoga) or medication: we are rewiring our brains. Even our genetic expression shifts for the better.

ACEs are common and cumulative. They have been called the largest unrecognized public health epidemic in the United States. Our society doesn’t make it easy to provide safe, nurturing environments for our little ones that would prevent ACEs. 15 million U.S. children – 21 percent – live in poverty. That’s one in five! Health care is a privilege rather than a right. Child welfare systems are broken; foster care is often a nightmare of instability. It is common for parents to return to work 6 weeks after giving birth. Our societal norms create environments that are conducive to ACEs, rather than preventing them.

And so you end up with a young man who is a broken human being acting out his traumatic life by taking the lives of innocents. A young man who legally purchased a semi-automatic rifle in a state with lenient gun laws. This is not a mental health issue; it is a whole body issue. It is a societal values issue. It requires responses like stricter gun control exactly because we can’t predict who might act out of their lived experiences next.

The trauma-informed response to someone with behavior issues is to check our assumptions and ask, “What happened to you?” instead of, “What’s wrong with you?” and then to affirm them in acknowledging their suffering. No infant is born wanting to shoot up a school. We need more than stricter gun laws; we need a fundamental shift in values – and the policies that flow from them – so that we create a society that supports young families. We need cross sector awareness of the impact of ACEs so that we respond in ways that promote healing. “What is predictable is preventable” says one of the original ACE researchers, Dr. Anda. Let’s get the conversation going.


A Place of Healing: An Advent Reflection

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. – John 1:14

I was teaching UrbanPromise Academy sophomores about how emotions play out in our bodies when Andrea’s eyes opened wide. She slapped her open hands, palms down, on the black chemistry table then slid her hands toward her, leaving trails of sweat. “This! What does this mean??” She didn’t understand what was happening in her body and that made her afraid and anxious.

Growing up in concentrated urban poverty means too many of our children experience toxically stressful living situations, filled with unpredictability, hunger and exposure to violence. The universal human response to chronic adversity is numbness…because you can’t stuff down bad feelings without pushing down good feelings too. It’s just the way we are wired.

Ours is an incarnational faith. I believe Jesus came in a body for a reason! Our bodies are sacred; and when they are trying to communicate with us, we need to listen. That’s why we focus on teaching about emotions, and empower our youth with mindfulness practices, teaching how to get in touch with their bodies, emotions and thoughts with compassion and without judgment. We learn to look at and to love ourselves through God’s eyes.

By asking Andrea, “What happened to you?”, she was able to connect her sweaty palms to her father’s anger towards herself and her mother before school that morning. This realization occurred at UrbanPromise – a loving, safe, predictable and relational environment. A place of healing. This insight helped her know that she wasn’t crazy and lessened her fear about her body. She came to understand that by listening to her body she could gain a sense of control.

This season we celebrate Emmanuel, Christ with us. This incarnate Word points the way to deep healing from the brokenness of this world; brokenness with which our youth are all too familiar. Learning acceptance of what is – in our bodies—opens the door to hope for what can be…lives lived with intention, called to serve the one who was born in a lowly manger.

Reflection: Poet Reiner Maria Rilke writes, “let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.” What feeling are you carrying that you would rather not acknowledge? What would happen if you invited Christ into that feeling?”

What Colors Would You Choose?

The hands were bright orange, because orange represents feeling thoughtful. He is thoughtful when he uses his hands to help his brother, sister and mom.

Another set of hands were dark red, the color of anger, for when she wants to punch something. “My hands get hot and I want to yell.”

Each therapy sheet is a rainbow of colors in human form, representing emotions each child feels often and where they feel them in their bodies. “When I’m happy, my chest and stomach feel full of energy.” “When I’m scared, my heart beats fast and my chest hurts.” These sheets give us insights into each precious life and helps us to better understand behavior. This is trauma-informed practice, asking, “what happened to you?” instead of “what’s wrong with you?” And it’s teaching kids to use their words instead of their red fists!

We have Libby Whitman to thank for this. Libby officially started as our mental health clinician just a month ago, though really, she’s been involved for a year now, having done an internship at CamdenForward School in her last year of graduate school. Libby graduated with her master’s in counseling from Westminster Seminary. She spent all summer collecting resources to use here at UrbanPromise, and our classroom walls all boast posters showing breath practices. The wellness room at our high school has a poster showing brain states and ways kids can self-regulate to get themselves back up from an alarmed state to rational thinking again. Teachers and students understanding that exhaling longer than inhaling is calming, while a longer inhale is energizing. Third grade is meeting as a class once a week to learn the difference between tattling and when it’s right to tell an adult something. Libby has checked in with every new student this year from k-12, helping to assure a smooth transition. And in between all of these commitments she is providing individual counseling as well as doing classroom check-ins.

I’m always worrying that Libby is doing too much but so far, she says she is happy and excited every day when she arrives here. She has so many gifts to share and our UrbanPromise community is blessed by her presence. So, welcome Libby! We are most thankful for you.




Things That Defile

One of the most consistent frustrations I’ve experienced working with trauma-impacted youth has been that unless they have marks of physical abuse on their bodies, it is difficult to get them the attention they need from child protective services. And yet ACE (adverse childhood experiences) -based research demonstrates that it is emotional abuse and neglect that have the most impact on health and well-being across the lifespan as compared to physical abuse (references available upon request). “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me!” We used to chant on the playground of our childhoods; it turns out we had that backwards. The New Testament illuminates the importance of words: Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth that defiles…what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.” (Matthew 15: 10-12, 18)

I reflect on this in light of the current state of our country: of the hatred spewed in Charlottesville last weekend; of the Republican political agenda which seeks to incarcerate even more people of color while increasing barriers for them to vote; the shaming of immigrants (of color) who chose to risk their lives for a better opportunity for themselves and their children. This is defiling.

I reflect on this as I read my African American friend’s post on FB – how his 90-something father is warning him to “be careful out there”; as I hear our African fellows say they didn’t realize they were black before they came here; and how I receive vitriolic emails in response to a letter to the editor I wrote pointing out subtle white privilege. This is defiling.

These words and actions cause emotional pain. Imagine being a part of a sociological group (because we all know race is not biological, right?) that bears the intergenerational marks a 300 year history of slavery, whose media and cultural messages vilify them wrongly, whose schools are a disgrace. Racism is being recognized as an ACE and the problem is you can’t see the physical effects of it on a body to report it…but the emotional impact takes a costly toll.

Of Plato and Invisible Backpacks

It’s not every day that a student texts you a quote from Plato. It was spring break for the UP schools, our after-school camps had students and teen StreetLeaders out on adventures, and one of the teens who is in a class I teach sent me a picture from a memorial plaque that read, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” – Plato. So, I texted back, “Isn’t that the truth?” and she answered, “I thought that went with the backpack theme we went over in class”. It’s probably good that she couldn’t see me jumping up and down with joy as I texted back, “Absolutely! You have so got this! I think I may use this quote for my doctoral project.” And she answered, “Yes do it – I thought it was great. I found it at the Cape May zoo”.


This is the fifth year of our Wellness Center existence, which we will be celebrating this evening at our annual Be Well, Be Promise fundraiser. And it is the year we were able to deepen the services that we offer. We have had 6 professionals providing trauma-informed counseling, thanks to our gifted therapist Trish, two dedicated volunteers, and graduate student interns. We were able to meet every referral that was made by our teaching staff, providing an average of 80 counseling sessions every month. 80% of our classrooms learned how to practice mindfulness. Our high school students participated in 6 weeks of interactive self-esteem classes with interns. Our elementary school grades had access to drum circles, a Lego group and OK/Not OK Touch education. Our sophomores learned about emotional intelligence, which is shown to be a powerful tool for success. We also did career planning with reality checks of what it takes financially to move out of poverty. We doubled the number of garden to table cooking classes offered and are getting each grade out into the garden at least once this spring, with friend and colleague Nadia working hard to keep the garden ready. In the kitchen our dietitian Judy has shifted cooking from prepared meals to scratch cooking, has kids participating in taste tests and naming contests to increase buy-in to our healthy food we serve, and has been educating every grade in our schools, as well as being a frequent presence in the cafeteria to sit with students and answer questions. And in our elementary classrooms volunteer Kate has been coaching teachers on how to incorporate frequent movement into the curriculum and class day – both to reduce the risk of obesity as well as to help manage behavior. Because really, who likes to sit still for long periods of time?


And this year, not only has our staff continued to receive trauma-informed training but so have 9 of our youth. Every Friday morning, they tromp over to the Peace House on campus from the high school, where I have breakfast bars and coffee waiting…and we talk about the science that undergirds all of our wellness initiatives. They can tell you about the Adverse Childhood Experiences study, ACEs for short, which showed that for every traumatic event like abuse, neglect and witnessing domestic violence, health risks increase as do behavior issues. They name immediately now which “brain state” they are in – recognizing when something has triggered them into their emotional brains – where it is harder to both think rationally and to respond to pleas of “just calm down” by well-meaning adults. And they are practicing how to “regulate” themselves with safety plans which include self-talk, deep breathing and taking a drink of cold water to maintain control. Talk about entertaining texts – I have received three this year that said “Mrs Becky! I did it! I didn’t fight! I was just about to and then I remembered what you said.” And the Plato quote? Well, we talk all the time about the invisible backpack that everyone carries. If you open it you will find ACE scores that average 5 in Camden, emotions that we are carrying from earlier events, and relationships, both healthy and unhealthy, that help form our reactions to others…all of which can’t be seen by just looking at someone. So we do need to be kind.

My heart is filled with gratitude when I reflect back on these past 5 years. I am thankful for staff, volunteers, our donors who make this possible, and most of all our amazing youth who are overflowing with potential and fill me with hope. God is good.

IMG_1350Support the UrbanPromise Wellness Center

“I Didn’t Know What To Call It”

Who will care for the caregivers? For the folks on the frontline who witness the impact that chronic exposure to violence has on the lives of those whom we serve? This is the question posed by the Philadelphia documentary, Portraits of Professional Caregivers: Their Passion, Their Pain, created by Vic Compher, Rodney Whittenberg and Tim Fryett. They use a combination of interviews with child welfare workers, therapists, firemen, police and others interspersed with commentary by experts in the field to demonstrate the concepts of secondary or vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue…along with compassion satisfaction.

UrbanPromise has a long-standing practice of holding all-staff meetings the first Friday afternoon of every month. Schools close early and staff from every department: after-school programs, schools, experiential learning, interns, international Fellows, food services, development team, and administration…gather to form community and remind ourselves why we do what we do. This past Friday I was invited to share this documentary, courtesy of the Camden Healing10 collaboration, in lieu of our usual format.

Frankly I wasn’t sure at all how this heavy (one staff member called it “brutal”) documentary would play with our staff.  While I believe it’s important for every community member at UrbanPromise to be trauma-sensitive, not everyone is on the front line. And our after-school program staff are struggling right now with several personal losses – was it fair to expose them to even more sadness? I knew the documentary ended on a bright, hopeful note but boy, those first forty-five minutes are intense.

I prefaced the film by inviting people to care for themselves as they needed to while watching it, then sat down. You didn’t want to feel my shoulders while we were watching. And yet watch we did, then broke out by department to debrief with questions that I gave each of the directors. When we came back together, each group shared insights, which included the need to watch out for each other and to speak up when we see a colleague struggling. A few thanked me personally for giving them new language for personal experience. And I thought that was the end of it. Until the following Wednesday afternoon.

“Becky, I have to thank you for that film last Friday,” Chef Shawn said as he greeted me on the back porch of the Peace House. Chef Shawn is leading our new catering enterprise, UrbanChefs. He is a phenomenal cook, is gregarious and funny, and is also teaching our newest cooking class for after-school kids. “I have to tell you; I have been praying for a sign on whether or not this job is right for me. Watching that film gave me my answer. You see, in my last job I prided myself on the fact that I trained 650 culinary students at Respond! But 37 of them have died. I have pictures of every one of them. And four more are now in prison for life. They all did so well when they were with me…I didn’t know what to call what I was feeling about losing them. But now I know that it is secondary trauma.  I carry them with me.”  I didn’t have words at first to respond to this, so moved was I, and honored by his sharing. I thanked him, and he thanked me again, this time for the opportunity to teach the cooking class. “That’s the other sign that I received last week – I love to teach and I haven’t had the chance since I started this job!” he said with a smile.

I had ended the all-staff meeting with a quote from Sister Helen Cole, a saint who works in Camden with families who have lost someone to homicide. When I asked her how she managed not to burn out, she answered, “Align yourself with goodness! Good food, good music, good people, good wine!” This cooking class was goodness for Chef Shawn. And I experienced a great deal of compassion satisfaction – and humility – as a conduit for God’s message to him.

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Parenting’s troubled history: Why changing family patterns is our most important work — ACEs Too High

As we learned from the CDC-Kaiser Permanente ACE Study, negative childhood experiences are often kept secret, downplayed, or repressed because of our powerful desire to put such things behind us. Unfortunately, our minds and our brains don’t work that way. Patterns can play out automatically, no matter how hard we try to be original and […]

via Parenting’s troubled history: Why changing family patterns is our most important work — ACEs Too High

Trauma-Informed Transformation

I was just going to breeze in and out of CamdenForward School, our elementary grades at UrbanPromise, to fax something and grab my paycheck. Then the plan was to bury myself again in my mile long ‘to-do’ list, the weight of which was interrupting my sleep with increasing frequency. But the fax machine is in the main office…and the main office has a picture window…and as I pressed buttons I heard, “Oh there’s Mrs. Becky! Maybe she can talk with Josiah.” Despite my boundary setting intentions I asked what was up: Josiah, who is usually quiet, was having a no good, very bad day. His concerned teacher said he had been irritable and out of sorts all morning, and when one of his classmates teased him, he lost it, saying angry things and hiding in a corner. Josiah stood next to her crying, upset at the thought of us calling his mom. Despite assurances that he wasn’t in trouble, his anger ratcheted up again after a conversation with her, he began pacing and muttering under his breath and it was evident that rational, soothing words were not having their desired effect. “Josiah, want to go outside and walk around the playground? We do not have to talk. Let’s just walk.” Big brown eyes caught mine and he nodded. Out we went, his steps quickly outdistancing mine as he began to circle the playground. “You all say ‘everything will be all right’ but it won’t. I’m in trouble I know it.  You think I’m crazy right? But I’m not crazy and it’s not fair.” Round and round he went, with me in the middle staying just close enough to grab him if he darted. I didn’t say much other than to affirm his venting. I was just beginning to wonder if I was nuts or if this trauma-informed approach would work when he stopped, looked at me and said, “Mrs. B you’re nice. Do you want to go on the see-saw with me?” “Why I’d love to, Josiah!” Up and down we went, he astutely (ahem) noting that I weigh a lot more than he…and having a good talk about stress. I asked a few careful questions, not wanting to trigger him again, but it was increasingly clear that he had exited his emotional brain for his rational one. He stopped the see-saw, cracked a smile and said, “it’s a beautiful day out here isn’t it? Perfect weather.” God bless this kid. After a few more minutes we came up with a plan on how to handle any more stressful moments in class that day…he would “pause on his paws”, that is feel his hands and feet, squeeze them tight and relax them, then take a deep breath to stay in control. He liked that. He was able to return to class and was calm the rest of the day.


After school we walked to meet his mom, and unsolicited he expressed deep gratitude for my kindness. “I know now that if I hold my emotions in they are going to make me sick. It’s good to let them out.” Such wisdom from the mouth of a babe! I told him how intelligent and wise he was, and that it was an honor to spend time with him.


This all could have gone so differently. In the not too distant past when a student lost control in class he or she would be punished or suspended, beginning a vicious cycle of defiance against classroom expectation. But when a child is stuck in the emotional brain, he or she is not in control and it’s up to us to help them get to the rational brain – by physically moving, by practicing a mindful meditation, by prayer. Josiah ended the day knowing that he is loved by his family and school, that it is healthy to feel emotions, not shameful (something else he shared) and that he can learn to express himself in a way that won’t feel out of control. What potential lays in learning this in elementary school! Feels hopeful, doesn’t it?

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UrbanPromise All Camp Day, 2016

Having Fun While Reducing the Risk of Obesity

“That food tastes nasty! I’m not touching it Ms. Becky.”“One more time and your whole class will lose recess!”
“I just can’t get the kids’ attention. They are so restless…”

Until recently it was not uncommon to hear these things said during school days here at UrbanPromise. Our cafeteria staff was trying its best to meet USDA standards with prepackaged foods; staff were frustrated with the high energy levels of our kids and their seeming inability to focus (through my lens a result of living in this toxically stressed city). And then there are the abysmal statistics around obesity in areas of concentrated poverty: 40% of children in Camden are overweight and obese, and their food behaviors include not enough veggies and way too much fast food and sugar.

What’s a prevention-minded nurse practitioner to do??? Attack from all angles, that’s what! And thankfully, with funding from The Horizon Foundation for New Jersey, we’ve been able to do just that this year.

In the kitchen/cafeteria, our awesome dietician, Judy Lazo, has created a monthly menu of scratch-cooked meals, along with a cookbook with recipes for 150 servings (!). She leads taste tests and entree naming contests to engage our students and increase buy-in. Earlier this month the recipe being tested was a sweet potato bake, since the kids didn’t like the sweet potato tots…the winning name was Sweet Potato Crunch, and the kids gave it many thumbs up! It will now be a regular on the menu. Judy is also teaching nutrition in our classrooms.

Meanwhile our Rowan intern, D’Andre Miller, is incorporating movement into the lunch periods – by using fun videos from websites such as Go Noodle and JAM. This is helping on a number of fronts – the students are a bit rowdy coming into the lunchroom after being in class all morning, so five minutes of movement helps them to release energy, which in turns helps with behavior. Clapping is now used to get students’ attention instead of a whistle, which helps with the calm, and if a student doesn’t participate in moving – instead of being reprimanded we use a trauma-informed approach to find out what’s wrong, and then lift up and encourage them. Recess follows lunch, and staff now understand it can’t be taken away – these kids need to move!

Continuing on the movement front – we are trying to increase movement throughout the day to boost metabolism, since sedentary lifestyles greatly increase the risk of obesity, heart disease and diabetes. This is where experienced educator and volunteer Kate Hilgen comes in. Our school staff received training at the beginning of the year on the importance of integrating movement into teaching strategies, but that is easier said than done, especially for new teachers. Kate is quietly observing in classrooms, brainstorming with our teachers, and helping new teachers learn from experienced teachers. The result is our kids are moving more frequently. “Stand up if you think you have the right answer!” I overheard the other day, and it warmed my heart!

Cooking classes are continuing through My Daughter’s Kitchen/Vetri Foundation. The garden will get going soon and students will grow veggies and cook with them. At the food co-op we have taste tests and recipes. Lots of good tasting and moving things going on around here!

Freshman at College

My phone chirps this afternoon – it’s Derjanai texting me: “Mrs Becky, I can say that Coppin’s improving my reading skills. I read more and faster than before I think it’s because of my reading class.” This out of the blue…she’s always thinking. I type back, “Good to hear. I know at some colleges the reading gets totally overwhelming.” We go back and forth a bit then she texts, “At first it was like, ‘why am I here?’ Because it’s 2 hours of class and reading every night. But now it’s kind of ok. I hated reading but now it’s ok.”

It’s time to lift up Derjanai Thomas in celebration of her successful transition into college (with her permission! I checked).

I first met Nai Nai at the beginning of sophomore year at UrbanPromise Academy, our high school. She could NOT sit still. I kind of figured out why when I gave the class a life stressor survey – it listed common stressors for teens and assigned points – the higher your score, the more stressed you were. Anything over 200 was significant and the health book recommended counseling – Nai Nai scored 1250. 1250! She had lost a lot of loved ones that year. I wouldn’t have been able to sit still either…or maybe I would have been sitting too still, frozen in grief.

Nai Nai demonstrated grit, a stick-to-it-ness, throughout her time at UPA. Active in UrbanTrekkers and recognized for her leadership skills, her passion was history, and I recall that moment at the end of junior year when she scored a 100 on a paper that was hard won and well deserved. At the end of senior year, she was accepted to Coppin State University, located in Baltimore, MD. Our dedicated volunteer and fellow First Presby Haddonfield member, Bob Lehman, took her down to tour right after the Baltimore riots this past spring. A historically black university, it seemed a great fit for this resilient young woman. But then there were the details of actually going to college. As the first in her family to go, there was little support and no familiarity with the process.

When we take our kids to college, it is not uncommon to pack up a mini van full, or a small UHaul of all the seeming “necessities” – matching bed linens, towels, wall hangings, clothes, furniture, etc. etc. I knew that Nai Nai did not have access to these niceties – it’s not uncommon for young people growing up in concentrated urban poverty to arrive at college with all their belongings in a garbage bag or 2. Thankfully at my fundraiser this past spring, I was able to introduce Derjanai to Andy Reinicker, who is chairperson of our church Deacons. He took it from there, and the email went out asking for support.

“What’s your favorite color Nai Nai?” Purple
“What do you think you need?” A desk lamp and one of those wall thingy-s (bulletin board)

then later…”Mrs Becky do you think there’s any chance I could get a bean bag chair?” this was after she was at Coppin for the summer program. Andy got a real kick out of this.

The Deacons’ response was overwhelming – I believe almost every member of this serving body of our church donated something. And 3 kind women took her out to lunch (text: “What should I WEAR???” response: “Whatever makes you feel confident”). Nai Nai knows there are people rooting for her, interested in her. There’s a power in that that can’t be measured.

I’m honored that she’s staying in touch. She’s keeping me busy editing her papers. She thinks her classes are too easy (thanks to expectations set at UPA) but I’m relieved she’s keeping up. I can see how she’s adjusting and growing, and how I’m making fewer edits. This gal is going somewhere, and it’s great to be along for the ride.